Founders Interviews: Vasco Pedro of Unbabel

This month, we bring you an interview with Unbabel co-founder and CEO, Vasco Pedro.

Unbabel is a language operations platform that blends advanced AI with human editors, for fast, efficient, high-quality translations, helping companies deliver multilingual customer experience at scale.

*This interview has been slightly edited for reading ease.

First I would like to know a bit about your professional background and the path that led you to Unbabel.

I studied in Lisbon, a degree that no longer exists: Language and Knowledge Engineering, that was basically a major in Artificial Intelligence and a minor in Competition Linguistics. From a young age I was passionate about AI and the relationship between AI and consciousness, how human beings express their intelligence. I worked for a few years and then went to the USA to do a masters and a PhD in Natural Language Processing at Carnegie Mellon. During my PhD I worked in a lot of places like Google, Siemens, Honda and afterwards I created companies that used AI to solve different problems. In 2011 I came back to Portugal where I met João, my co-founder and CTO. He had just finished his PhD in Machine Translation in the UK and we started working on a few projects together. In 2013 we decided to start Unbabel.

You sort of already answered my next question which was how Unbabel was born.

Well, language processing was something that João and I would talk about regularly, but the official moment was during a surf trip. We started surfing together along with our other co-founders, and we were already on the lookout for ideas, but there was a surf trip where we decided we’d spend that weekend brainstorming about what we were going to do together and it was then that we officially decided to start Unbabel.

What has been the most crucial moment in the history of Unbabel so far?

There’s been so many, it’s hard to say. Positive or negative?

Positive.

An iconic moment was getting accepted into the Y Combinator in 2014. From then, the Unbabel journey accelerated a lot, just by being exposed to a different mindset, a more productive and ambitious mindset than we had initially set out with.

Have you got any tips or advice for someone who’s just started a start-up?

There’s something I’ve heard many times but that has only recently sunk in; sometimes I’m reluctant to give advice because certain things you learn through experience and maybe this is one of them. But it’s that before you scale the company, you need to focus in product market fit. That means having a product, understanding the product, what it does, who it’s catering to and then work towards engagement and traction, before you think of scaling sales and teams.

Lastly, I would like to ask what’s the best part of having a startup and also the most difficult part.

The most difficult part is when we try many ideas, experiment with different things, but something doesn’t work out and we must readjust and that affects people. Meaning, you have to reduce teams. Unfortunately, most companies have to do that at a certain point and it’s very hard because it’s people who believe in your dream, have come on board and are working with you. Having to reduce team size is always complicated emotionally, to the culture of the company and obviously even more complicated to the people affected. It’s no doubt the hardest part. The best part depends from person to person but for me is the creativity — having an idea about something that doesn’t exist in the world and then making it happen.

*Interview and translation by Matilde Castro.

If you enjoyed this interview, don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast, The Red Chair, for a full 30 minute episode with Vasco Pedro out in September!

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Leading early stage VC based in Lisbon, Portugal

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